“At the same time, many Jews were affected by the ‘Back to the Soil’ movement, then coming into popularity among the Russian intelligentsia, and expressed in the writings of such Russian literary greats as Tolstoy and Turgenev….
“The period of severe persecution and pogroms that followed the assassination of Alexander II in 1881…provided a direct stimulus for the appearance of the Am Olam and Bilu movements – the former encouraging emigration to the United States, the latter to Palestine. The grandiose schemes and plans of the Am Olam groups, therefore, caught the imagination of the Jewish masses, and Eastern European Jewry eagerly awaited the results of these attempts at colonization.”[ii]
Most national American Jewish communal leaders were not in favor of Jews setting up agricultural settlements. They preferred that the new immigrants be scattered throughout the country so that they would more quickly be assimilated into the larger community. Despite this, almost twenty-five collective Jewish agricultural colonies were established in various parts of America beginning in 1881. Jewish agricultural colonies populated by Russian Jewish immigrants were established (in chronological order) in Louisiana, South Dakota, Colorado, Oregon, North Dakota, Kansas, Michigan, Virginia, Connecticut, and New Jersey.
The history of the Sicily Island Colony in Louisiana is outlined below.
The Sicily Island Colony
“The first agricultural colony of Russian Jews was founded under the leadership of Herman Rosenthal on Sicily Island, Catahoula Parish, Louisiana, in 1881. It comprised 35 families from Kiev and 25 from Yelisanetgrad. The colonists were recruited from three classes of immigrants. The first consisted of young idealists, professionals who looked upon colonization as an ideal. They wanted to show that Jews could be good farmers. The second class consisted of immigrants from southern and southwestern Russia who looked upon agriculture as a means of earning a livelihood. The rest of the immigrants had no definite aim and were largely influenced by the former two. The colonists were not very enthusiastic about the choice of location. Louisiana was not known to most of the colonists, and the climatic conditions did not appeal to them. They, however, had no choice in the matter as the land was selected without their knowledge.
“The colonists raised $3,000 among themselves; they received an additional $1,800 from the New York committee, and the Alliance Israelite Universelle sent $2,800.”[iii]
The Jewish community of New Orleans enthusiastically supported this project and supplied assistance in a variety of ways. Within a few days of the arrival of the immigrants in New Orleans, the men left their families there and departed for the colony. The colonists were cordially welcomed by the citizens of Catahoula Parish, who promised them protection and cooperation.
“The colonists divided in groups and set to work. A German farmer was employed as advisor. The colonists were quartered in three big houses, but as the dwellings were found unsuitable, the New Orleans Jewish community built twelve others. The colonists worked hard and anticipated good results, and in appreciation of the cooperation shown by the New Orleans Jewish community the colonists wrote a letter of thanks to the president of the New Orleans association.
“The work of the colonists progressed. They fenced the grounds and planted corn and vegetables; they cut down trees, planted fruit trees, repaired roads, dug wells, and built three two-room cottages. A governing board was elected, and a constitution was framed and adopted. A report published in the American Israelite of March 24, 1882, praised the work of the colonists very highly. The colonists themselves were very optimistic, and some of them wrote to their friends in Russia urging them to select Louisiana as their new home.
About the Author: Dr. Yitzchok Levine served as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey before retiring in 2008. He now teaches as an adjunct at Stevens. Glimpses Into American Jewish History appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at email@example.com.
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